In consecutive days this month, from 20-22 January, a trio of Africa’s brightest lights for freedom and accountability were violently extinguished. ... In just 72 hours, three of the continent’s most intrepid and well-respected leaders had been silenced.
On 31 March, Laurent Gbagbo’s acquittal was upheld by the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Appeals Chamber, thus clearing his name of charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ten years earlier, he was sent to The Hague’s Scheveningen prison, a facility that houses perpetrators of genocide, bloodthirsty dictators and lawless warlords.
The decision concerns us all, but the 3,000 people who fell victim to Côte d’Ivoire’s 2010-2011 post-election crisis no longer have a say in the matter. We have to ask ourselves what is the point of a court that has neither law enforcement officers nor experts, and whose prosecutors tend to be borderline amateurish. Evidence and guilty parties are lacking on either side, despite the millions of euros spent on the case and the many years it took to hand down a decision.
Does the ICC’s acquittal mean that the atrocities committed in the aftermath of Gbagbo’s refusal to recognise the outcome of the presidential election never happened? That the opening of machine gun fire on a market and a women’s demonstration, the carrying out of summary executions, and the kidnapping and manhunt of activists were just a figment of our imagination?
That the current political backpedalling by the key protagonists of the post-election tragedy, in an effort to push the entire country into a state of collective amnesia in the name of a spurious reconciliation, is not just another cynical political calculation, the secret of which lies with Côte d’Ivoire? In any event, ten years on the country has made little progress in its search for truth and, especially, justice.
Gbagbo and his former youth affairs minister, Charles Blé Goudé, are now “free to return to Côte d’Ivoire whenever they wish”, said President Alassane Ouattara a week after the Appeals Chamber announced its judgement. He added that the government would cover the travel expenses of Gbagbo and his family and that “measures will be taken to ensure that he receives, in accordance with the legislation in force, the allowance allotted to former heads of state”.
All that’s left to do is roll out the red carpet and form a guard of honour on the tarmac.
When Amadou Coulibaly, the new government spokesperson, was asked about Gbagbo’s 2019 conviction by an Ivorian court – which sentenced him to 20 years in prison and ordered him to pay a fine of 329bn CFA francs [approximately €500m] for “looting” the Ivorian branch of the Banque Centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO) [Central Bank of West African States] – and what it would mean in practical terms, he dodged the issue, sticking to President Ouattara’s line of rolling out the welcome mat.
If we take this reasoning to its logical conclusion, we should expect the president to grant Gbagbo a pardon, or even amnesty.
An endless dance
“I’m delighted … at the news of the final decision to acquit former president Gbagbo and ex-minister Blé Goudé,” said Henri Konan Bédié, the country’s ‘new’ opposition leader, as he celebrated the 75th anniversary of his political party, Parti démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI). “I hope that Ouattara’s administration will make every effort to facilitate their prompt, safe return to Côte d’Ivoire.” Ten years ago, Blé Goudé revelled at the sight of Gbagbo being taken into ICC custody. Go figure . . .
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But let’s outline the key events for those of you who have already forgotten all or part of this endless dance Gbagbo, Bédié and Ouattara have been performing for close to three decades, as well as for those of you who observe Côte d’Ivoire from afar. As they say, the past informs the future.
The beginnings of their political clash date back to the early 1990s. Ouattara, then prime minister under Félix Houphouët-Boigny, and Bédié, the leader of the country’s lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, banded together for the first time to prevent Gbagbo, Houphouët-Boigny’s only formidable opponent, from winning the presidency.
In February 1992, in the wake of a brutally dispersed demonstration, Gbagbo was arrested and held in prison for eight months – an experience he would never forget.
In 1993, Houphouët-Boigny’s death spurred a new showdown, this time between Bédié and Ouattara. Bédié became president, while Ouattara was forced out of his role as prime minister, but many PDCI party members followed him out the door. Gbagbo bided his time and developed ties with Ouattara, and the pair formed an unlikely coalition known as the Front républicain.
Their respective parties boycotted the 1995 presidential election and welcomed the 1999 coup d’état that swept Bédié out of office and installed General Robert Gueï as leader of the junta.
A mess of pottage
But Gbagbo and Ouattara’s alliance didn’t withstand the political sidelining of their common foe. With Ouattara and Bédié barred from running in the 2000 election, Gbagbo came out the winner. His break with Ouattara, against the backdrop of a dubious controversy over the latter’s “Ivorianness”, was complete.
In September 2002, an attempted coup targeting Gbagbo further fuelled feelings of animosity. Three years later, Bédié and Ouattara, thought to be irreconcilable, made a pact. Ouattara would go on to win the 2010 presidential contest, chiefly through his association with Bédié, whom Gbagbo likened to the biblical character Esau, Abraham’s grandson who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.
Their alliances have changed again, but the mad dance carries on. After vilifying Gbagbo over the years, Ouattara is now infatuated with him. Just like Guillaume Soro, Côte d’Ivoire’s own Janus: Mahatma Gandhi by day, Machiavelli by night, Ouattara’s former apostle has become a disciple of Bédié and “comrade” Laurent, though Gbagbo is not very fond of him.
‘My brother’, ‘my son’, ‘my elder’
Each politician’s unquenchable thirst for power is used to justify all kinds of backpedalling, although they make sure to hide their little acts of betrayal behind a façade of “reconciliation”, “forgiveness” and “benevolence”. The thugs, thieves and murderers of yesterday are “my brother”, “my son” or “my elder” today.
Of course, the flock follows them blindly, hoping to glean a few crumbs of power. Amnesia and cynicism are decidedly the most common virtues among the political class. The Ivorian people, on the other hand, dream of true reconciliation.
As the saying goes, forgiveness doesn’t change the past, but it does enlarge the future. Forgiveness is necessary for moving forward, but it doesn’t mean people should forget or distort history – or repeat the same mistakes.
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